Some may consider it morbid, but I like to read the obituaries. Not every day but once or twice a week I will spend a half hour or so reading through the life stories and accomplishments of those the world have recently lost. I am intrigued, not with how people have died, but with how they have lived. I don't know of another occasion wherein ones whole life is summed up in a short paragraph, from the perspective of your loved ones. Their sentiments and perspective is unique and how they choose to portray a life is perhaps the greatest reflection of how it was lived. I notice how some are filled with grief while others celebrate a life well lived with humor and an acknowledgment of the gift that their loved one was. Some read as a resume, making one pause to wonder at the character of a lost life, so summed up by career accomplishments. Then there are the young, whose stories where just beginning or in the middle of being told. Their families most often speak of tragedy and their words are a reflection of anguish and the loss of a promised life. Though they make my heart hurt, I force myself to read their obits as well. When I become caught up in myself and my problems, these young ones in particular make me pause to consider how lucky I am to be alive and healthy and how insignificant and frivolous my issues are when considered against the fragility of life.
There are so many reasons to read the obituaries, to reflect on ones own life and those we have lost, to acknowledge the contributions that others have made in this world, and to recognize those lost to our community. I also find that they make me wonder at how my own obituary will read one day. So often they begin with "Wife, Mother, Grandmother and friend." How will mine read when I do not plan to marry or have children. Perhaps I shall request that mine states, "This ol' spinster lived life large!" Seriously, I want to have contributed to a great good, as cliche as that may sound. I am a "girlfriend", sister, daughter and friend. Is that enough?
What I find most fascinating in the obits is reading the stories of the seniors who were the last pioneers. The people born before cars, computers, and cell phones. Those who bravely fought and survived depression, world war, and who blazed the first trails to settle the land where I live. It is a rare thing, to have seen the world change so much in the span of one lifetime, as they have. They are a rare generation, these unique and remarkable people. And we are loosing them, one by one to time. So I read their life stories while I wonder at my own.
I knew a man named Arnie that was born of such a generation. He was a cowboy. The real kind. I met him when I was about 19, one evening at a horse sale. We had both had come alone and found ourselves in front of the same stall, admiring a sleek bay Quarter Horse gelding. I had noticed him walking around before. He was hard to miss. Shorter than than my 5'5", in a wiry, half bent frame, he wore a old school dove gray 10 gallon cowboy hat perched atop a face that had fallen away with age. A bright red bandanna wrapped around his neck lent some color to his cheeks while a heavy leather vest, dark blue Wranglers and a big silver belt buckle completed the cowboy ensemble. I found myself, by chance, standing next to him at the stall that night. He made some comment about the horse at hand and we started up a conversation that carried us away through the rest of the evening as we walked around looking at horses, comparing notes and telling stories.
Arnie never failed to delight me with his sharp and witty sense of humor or his easy, friendly manner. As young as he was at heart, his body had whittled away over the years and left him with a constant shake that would cause his arthritic hands to make circles in the air when he would point or gesture. While telling me the fascinating stories of his youth, the fading gray of Arnie's once blue eyes would be set alight while his raspy voice would skip and fail to find a force to match the enthusiasm of his spirit. When sale time came we sat in the stands together, talking. Arnie claimed to have been a ladies man in his day. I believed him. He never failed to slip an around around my waist or lean in close to make a point, a half smile on his face. I couldn't speculate on his age, but however old, he was still a man, happily keeping company with a pretty young woman at his side.
When I left the sale that night I wondered if I would ever see him again. Thankfully, I did. Many times in the coming years, at various horse events around town, a big gray cowboy hat would catch my eye and I would find this little old man underneath it. We would welcome each other with a smile and a hug before settling in to walk the grounds together, picking up where we left off, with him spinning a yarn or two. I cant say when it was that I last saw Arnie. It would be years ago now. I hope he is still alive and well, as I hope to see him again some day. Either way, I will carry that man and his stories with me for the rest of my life. The first thing he ever told me, standing in front of the stall the night we met, was that the best riding horses are bay geldings with little to no white. I followed his advice and so far, it has served me well. My old bay gelding reminds a bit of Arnie, wise and knowing and set in his ways. The both bear the battle scars of a hard and long life but wear them with the diginity of a survivor.
I hope to meet many more people like Arnie, that can tell me their stories and impart some of their hard won wisdom before they pass. I read obituaries to learn how other people have lived and to know them, just a little, in passing.